Author Archives: live apt fire

About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

Twinsies

“Indistinguishable,” thy name is two old white guys.

In the news business — one dominated by youthful folk with hair abundant and appealingly tinted — old white guys populate the space reserved for colorless throwbacks.  It’s a space I know well.

Ergo, there’s a certain amount of confusion.  I am constantly called “Richard” or “Dale” or “Clark” or any number of names not mine, but belonging to other old white guys in the Atlanta TV market.

elliott, richards

Richard Elliott is the gent on the left

Yet the proverbial light bulb finally went off over my head when I saw the above photo of myself and Richard Elliot, a reporter at WSB-TV.  The bulb light blinked a message:  No wonder they’re confused!

Mr. Elliott and I covered the legislative session this year.  I’d plotted the photo after a moment of misunderstanding early in the proceedings.

One morning, I’d cornered Rep. Betty Price in the House anteroom and asked her for an interview.  Rep. Price is the wife of Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services.  He’d resigned from Congress.  His 6th district seat was up for grabs in a special election.  Rumor was that Betty Price was among those considering a run for the seat.

Rep. Price politely yet firmly declined my interview request, then did a double take and asked:  Didn’t we already have this conversation?  No ma’am, I assured her.  I stalked off to the press room, where I spotted Mr. Elliott.

Did you ask Betty Price for an interview this morning?  I asked him, adding that I had just done so.  I sure did, Mr. Elliott answered.  Just a few minutes ago. She turned me down, too.

Thus began a 40-day joke (Georgia’s legislature meets for 40 days) about mistaken identity.

Mr. Elliott is one of the hardest working general assignment reporters in the Atlanta market, seemingly WSB’s go-to on everything from mayhem to natural disasters to jurisprudence.  When Lori Geary, WSB’s longtime political reporter, was absent in previous years, the station sent Mr. Elliott.  When she fled WSB to start her own business in December 2016, he replaced her at the Capitol. lori

Had the blonde coiffed Ms. Geary stayed, there might have ensued another type of confusion altogether.  This year, WGCL regularly sent Atlanta newcomer Giovanna Drpic to cover the legislature.  She joined WAGA’s Claire Sims, who made Capitol appearances on those special occasions when she had successfully sweet-talked the station out of assigning her to stories about mistreated house pets or disrespectful treatment of Old Glory.

In fact, when I got Ms Drpic and Ms Sims to pose for the below photo, the former — speaking of Mr. Elliott and me — whispered Yes! I thought it was strange how similar you two looked.

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Giovanna Drpic WGCL and Claire Sims, WAGA

I’m quite sure Mr. Elliott, who also happens to be the nicest guy in the whole friggin’ world, is a decade or so younger than me.  He has always told me that I look like his father.

So there’s that.

Watson and Wood

Some dear friends, a couple who live near me, regularly watch 11Alive News. Best I can tell, it’s mostly because they admire the work of Jaye Watson.

Jennifer "Jaye" Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson is a seventeen year reporter at 11Alive.  In her earliest days there, a news director ordered her to assume the on-air name of “Jaye.” As the years passed, she evolved into a backup anchor. Under news director Ellen Crooke, she deservedly became a storytelling specialist.  As such, she won a trove of writing and storytelling awards.

Her “moments” on TV typically involved wrenching stories of adversity / triumph of the human spirit, elegantly written and produced collaboratively with 11Alive’s best photographers.

She leaves WXIA Friday January 13th for a job at Emory University.

Our industry loses good people every day.  It’s so commonplace that I have trouble even acknowledging them, much less writing about them.

The losses this coming month are glaring. Watson will blaze a trail for the exit, followed closely by Brenda Wood, Atlanta’s best news anchor. Brenda leaves February 7.

As good and as credible as Brenda is on-air, she is, like Watson, a force majeur when writing and producing stories.  It’s a talent folks rarely get to see in Brenda.  Major market news anchors are more consumed than you might think simply anchoring the news.  Reporting and producing stories becomes secondary.

brendaIt shone when Brenda covered the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.  She also produced top-notch segments in various documentaries, including the retrospective we made last year about the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And while I’ve known Brenda since she first landed in 1989 at WAGA, Watson has been my day-to-day cubicle buddy — and family friend —  for the last seven years.

Although she’s brilliant and gifted, Watson is also endearingly abrupt and unpredictable, a well-coiffed, walking non-sequitor in sensible shoes. She’s almost laughably warmhearted, passionate about politics, and has a lovely twisted streak. We are dissimilar enough to make the friendship very interesting.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

She’s also extraordinarily humble. She has zero awards displayed at her house, though she and her husband Kenny Hamilton, WXIA’s former chief photographer, have probably won fifty Emmys between them, maybe more. When she wins an Emmy, she often gives the statue to the subject of the story.

Weirdly, some of my proudest professional moments have been when Watson has erupted in her cubicle, agitated and searching for a word or phrase in a story she’s writing, and insists upon my help.  On a handful of occasions, she’s sent me a script she didn’t quite like, and asked me to fix it.  Whenever it happened, and I could actually help, I found myself endlessly flattered.  But to be clear: She very rarely needed my help.

Before I got to know her, during my 2008 TV news hiatus, I wrote a piece in this blog about Watson’s writing skills, putting side-by-side her coverage of some garden-variety mayhem against the earnest yet underwhelming coverage of a former WGCL reporter.  The comparison showed there was no comparison.

I probably won’t see her this week.  I’ll be ensconced at the Capitol. She will be, undoubtedly, receiving well-deserved accolades at work — just as Brenda will as February 7 nears. Although Watson is expected to retain an occasional on-air storytelling presence at WXIA, they will be irregular at best.

I could write a whole ‘nother post about how on-air women navigating middle age justifiably fear for their futures in TV news, regardless of their talent.  As a greybeard TV news male, I’m keenly aware of a double standard. The recent abrupt exits of talented, veteran female anchors at a competing local station are all the evidence you need. To its credit, WXIA tried to keep Watson and Wood.

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

January 13 will be a rough day.  Watson leaves, and so does promotions chica Lea-Anne Jackson, whom I’ve known since she was an 80s-era intern at WAGA. She is one of the most quick-witted people in the building; she memorably and adorably photobombed a live shot I did on St. Patrick’s Day a generation ago. One of my greatest pleasures in alighting at WXIA in 2009 was unexpectedly seeing Lea-Anne in a hallway and resuming our friendship.  She is also pals with Watson; their hushed tete-a-tetes at Watson’s adjacent cube frequently led to imagined conspiracies against me.

There may be a public sendoff.  Perhaps I’ll tip off my friends in the neighborhood.

To see Jennifer Watson’s take on her departure, click here.

Defining “news”

“Why is this news?”

That’s always a reasonable question. Answering it isn’t always easy.

In this instance, the questioner was Steven Maples, attorney for Tex McIver.  We were outside the Fulton County jail just before Christmas.  McIver, charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his wife Diane, was about to post bond and exit the jail.  A gaggle of photographers was waiting, plus one reporter.

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Tex McIver (left) exits the Fulton County jail with his attorney Steven Maples

I had met Maples earlier in the week. As attorneys go, he seemed humble and humorous.  My presence in his life at that moment might be viewed by many, under similar circumstances, as an affront.  He didn’t.

While waiting for McIver to get out of the lockup and into the lobby, after a few minutes of amiable smalltalk, Maples pointedly posed the question.  

“Why is this news?”

I rarely cover mayhem at WXIA, and I’m grateful for that.  The McIver story was never my cup of tea.  But news folk often get stuck on stories they might not prefer.  As professionals, we have to embrace — and sometimes even defend — such assignments.

The circumstances, and the people involved, make it newsworthy, I answered.

The circumstances raise reasonable questions of Mr. McIver’s intent.  The investigation raises questions of whether Mr. McIver was getting special treatment from the police.

Maples snorted. He also seemed to appreciate an honest answer.

I also felt he deserved a bit of insight into the unscientific decision making of our business.

The truth is, our audience becomes more engaged in stories like this when those involved are — shall we say — people of means.  That was my diplomatic way of saying: When it’s rich folks involved, it’s more sensational.  (I personally avoid the word “sensational” because it’s a term used to undermine the motivations of the news media, though I can’t argue with its accuracy.)

People are idiots, Maples answered in frustration.  If they knew all the details, they would realize this shooting was a terrible tragedy.

steven-maples

Maples amiably allowed me to “ambush” interview him two days earlier

I wasn’t going to argue about the intelligence of our audience.  There’s a lot of hard evidence out there, especially on the internet, that supports his observation.

That led to a confession.

When I first started in this business, folks in newsrooms had to use their judgment and their smarts to decide what was newsworthy,  I told him. Except for Nielsen ratings and circulation data for newspapers, there was no “science.”  Many stories are obvious.  Some are more subjective. We made judgment calls based on our experience and our instincts and our unscientific knowledge of what we thought the audience wanted and needed to know. We still make those judgment calls.

But nowadays, there’s actual science added to the soup: We can measure which stories have traction on the internet.  The internet provides data measuring actual eyeballs, the type of which we used to only imagine. 

Now that we can count those eyeballs, we use that data to help us decide what stories we should follow. The McIver story, I told him, has a measurable following that we cannot ignore.

People are idiots, Maples said again.

Unfortunately, the internet — with all its awesome measurability — is part of a problem that has gradually eroded the credibility of traditional, commercial news media. We have propped up material on social media as newsworthy. Clickbait sites that traffic in unsubstantiated (or “fake”) news have large followings.

People are also unable to discern the difference between news and editorial.  Opinion pieces and pundit commentary gets lumped together with the product of those of us whose job it is to gather and evenhandedly present factual material.  That’s not just an internet problem, but the stew of “news” on the internet rarely lists the ingredients.

As a result, news is becoming messy and a bit ugly  — unless one actually takes a moment to define it.

Mr. Maples asked a question that ought to get asked more often.

One reason we have Trump

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I’m going to stick my neck out and say most folks in my business didn’t.img_1839

But I did predict his victory, documented in an election-eve text with my friend Matt.  I started calling it for Trump about a week before the election, as numerous polls showed Trump entering into a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton.

Much of the media spun that into a sure Electoral College victory for Clinton. Some had even begun writing post-Trump analyses of the GOP’s next steps after the impending election disaster.

I kept seeing flashbacks to 1980, when the chattering classes viewed Reagan as a madman incapable / undeserving of the reins of government, and the polls showed Carter winning.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan at their only debate

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan at their only debate

And while I didn’t vote for Trump, I have many friends and family members who did.  Their argument always started with their discomfort with “political correctness.”

I view political correctness as a pejorative term that really describes the Biblical Golden Rule — treat people the way they want to be treated.

That means adding a Q to LGBT.  It means embracing new bathroom and marriage rules. It means using the term “people of color” and not “colored people.”  It means understanding the finer points of #blacklivesmatter.

The fact that white Trump voters are exhausted by political correctness doesn’t make them racist.  Yes, plenty of racists supported Trump, just as there are plenty of idiots in my industry. It doesn’t make us all idiots, nor does it make me responsible for their behavior.

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In particular, Black Lives Matter confuses many whites.  When they trot out #alllivesmatter, it’s because they don’t understand the fact that average African Americans routinely have unnerving experiences with police.

Plus, if they would just obey cops, they wouldn’t get shot so much.

So to white Trump voters, it makes sense that all lives matter.

Yet they’re reviled as racist for saying it. So they’re drawn to Trump. He stood up against political correctness. He got clobbered for it.  He didn’t retreat.

Within that framework, all of his excesses could be excused because he didn’t back away from his many flaws.  “Build the wall” was politically incorrect.  Banning Muslims was politically incorrect.  Even if the details of those promises were problematic, his willingness to make them and stick to them made him singularly appealing.

So now we’ve got Trump. His first act was to banish a traveling press pool, which likely would be composed mostly of people who didn’t vote for him.

Very politically incorrect.

The lemon

Here’s what a lemon looks like:  It’s my KitchenAid dual oven gas range, purchased in 2012 for a princely sum.

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It was an appealing purchase at the time.  Two ovens are cool and handy.  Gas stoves are easier to control, and evoke my grandmother’s kitchen.

Grandma’s gas range worked great.  Mine doesn’t.

The problem is technology, a blessing and a curse in the 21st century.  When it works great, yay.  When it fails, it is complicated and costly to fix.

My grandmother’s stove didn’t have a motherboard.  Mine does.  Two years ago, it went completely haywire.  Pushing buttons to turn on the oven would instead change the time on the clock.  Adjusting the temperature upward would sometimes shut the whole thing down.

Because it was under warranty, KitchenAid replaced the motherboard.

Last week, it failed again.  This time, the oven won’t heat beyond 170 degrees.

The oven heats, but not enough.  The technology is screwing it up, according to the appliance guy who visited this week.  He offered to install a new motherboard for $450.

KitchenAid is offering to install a new one for $300, with a one year warranty.

At this rate, I’ll be installing new $300 motherboards every two years into a range that is obviously a lemon.  Nice business model, KitchenAid.

Why does a stove / range need a motherboard?   Instead of twisting a knob to activate the oven or set the temperature (grandma’s stove), mine has digital readouts and buttons (that aren’t really buttons) that are embedded next to the readouts.  Its looks very sleek, very 21st century.

When it works, it works great — but not as great as grandma’s did.

In my business, technology has changed a lot in the last twenty years.  We used to edit video on tape machines.  Now we do it in computers, and videotape only exists in archives.  When video machines failed, a guy with a toot belt would open them up and fix them.  When our computers fail, a guy (or two or three) will poke around, scratch their heads and try to decode the problem.  They’ve wiped my computer more times than I can count.  Each time, I lose all the stuff I’ve stored and all the memory that helps me work faster.  (And I can’t count how many failed external hard drives I’ve got in my desk, hoping they’ll reanimate one day.)

I get why TV news technology has advanced.  When it works, it’s lighter and faster and more mobile.

But a kitchen appliance doesn’t need to be mobile or faster or lighter.  The range needs to get hot when I want it to, without the interference of a very flawed KitchenAid computer motherboard that seems completely superfluous to cooking.

I’ve got a KitchenAid guy coming next week to to replace the motherboard — again — for $300.  Maybe I’m behind the times.  But it seems a bit outrageous.

The dump

You’ve probably been scouring the internet for Georgia oddities from the 1990s, as chronicled by a fuzzy headed local news reporter.

Work with me here.

You’ve been wondering about the guy who made jewelry out of prescription medicine.

You long to hear the voice, again, of the elderly gent who made a roadside garden out of discarded toilets.

You’re having a nostalgic twinge for the occulist who creates artistic pieces that substitute for what are commonly known as glass eyes.

Plus that guy who built drum kits into the dashboards of his automobiles.

 

A reporter in Mom jeans does a story about socks

A reporter in Mom jeans does a story about socks

Look no further.  Yours truly has been spending way too much free time dumping those stories, and more onto a Youtube channel.  So far the channel has 96 videos. There are hundreds more, painstakingly dubbed from Beta cassette to digital over the last — what, nine years?  Yes.

It lives again, in all its dated four-by-three glory.

The source is a franchise I fronted from 1996-2000 which produced feature stories that nearly always aired in the :45 slot of WAGA’s hour-long 10pm newscast, three to four days a week.  The franchise was a high point of what passes for my illustrious career, providing glorious freedom to write my own schedule and assignments — something every reporter craves but rarely gets in local news.

It also marked a high point in my changeable relationship with my boss, Budd McEntee, who endorsed the effort and the content for most of that time. “You’re kind of an urbane Leroy Powell,” he once said, which is one of the highest compliments I’ve ever gotten.  Every week I kind of pinched myself, disbelieving the project was allowed to continue. When Budd abruptly pulled the plug in 2000, I was heartbroken but not at all surprised.

One could also argue that the project was an opportunity squandered. I had enormous freedom, yet I rarely used the time to afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted. The newsroom had another team of folks who filled that role quite capably.

Enough introspection.

I’m dumping these stories to YouTube for several reasons.

A) I can;

B) I want my kids to be able to watch them, should they choose to do so, at their leisure without having to search through Dad’s hard drives;

C) The folks featured in these stories *might* enjoy internet immortality;

D) I feel obliged to document certain bits of unimportant history, such as the 4am Olympic torch run through Little 5 Points; the now-closed decrepit old bar called the Austin Avenue Buffet in now-trendy Inman Park, the shuttered 85 North Drive-In theater in Chamblee, the hair salon at now-mothballed Engel Stadium in Chattanooga.

The archive reveals I had a fixation with roadside curiosities. Aside from the guy who used toilets as planters, I’m especially fond of the story about the guy in Chatsworth whose lovely sense of symmetry made his junkyard of lawn mowers and hubcaps worth a couple minutes of TV time.

After producing a story we called “Dueling giant chairs,” I extended my roadside fixation to include giant fiberglass cows and giant fiberglass chickens.

Science provided an abundance of raw material.  This included the researcher who studied the aggressive tendencies of crawfish; the Georgia agricultural researchers who used waterbeds to make dairy cows more comfortable and more productive; and the kids who tracked nesting loggerhead turtles.

I’ve forced myself to watch every piece I’ve uploaded.  I recommend small doses.  The writing is decent enough, but I see that I leaned on certain stylistic crutches which, viewed with two decades of hindsight, can appear a bit tiresome.

On the other hand, I frequently waxed semi-poetic about utter bullshit. In my line of work, that’s a useful skill.

A guy at the Atlanta airport teaches a reporter how to putt

A guy at the Atlanta airport teaches a reporter how to putt

If I were to overanalyze it, I would say that the body of work represents one team’s fascination with humanity’s quirks (seemingly cementing the adjective “quirky” to any subsequent description of yours truly).  It took almost no time for Andi Larner to figure out that I was a feature reporter who had little patience for soaring emotion or feel-good quaintness. I wanted weird, and together we gleefully scoured Georgia (and occasionally, North America) to find it.  With scant exception, she edited every piece.  She still toils in WAGA’s newsroom, one-woman-banding the occasional curious feature, a self-taught photographer who shot her first stories on an Ipad.  She is a treasure. She undoubtedly deserves a raise.

The talented Rodney Hall bailed out of local news in 1999 or so to thrive in the freelance world. I last saw him with a camera at a Donald Trump rally this summer.

If nothing else, the collection catalogues the horrors of my wardrobe and haircuts during the late 90s. I’d abandoned my reliable yet expensive barber for cheaper talent that produced some abominable haircuts.  (I also did an overwrought story on that abandonment, suggested by a supervisor who had probably noticed the difference but didn’t have the heart to straight-up tell me my hair was faltering.)

I seemed to have a couple of go-to orange sweaters that are quite overused. My wardrobe advice for any man in similar straits now would be: Wear a sportcoat or suit, always.

Bullsh!t walks

Twenty years ago, I produced two stories that depicted me as a homeless guy wandering among visitors to Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics. The premise still makes me cringe. Yet, I’d do it again.

"Sir, may I help you?"

“Sir, may I help you?”

The story was rooted in abundant anecdotal evidence that authorities were aggressively rooting out downtown’s homeless folk in order to prevent them from mingling with Olympic visitors. Most of the evidence came from the homeless themselves, and their advocates. Ask the authorities, and they’d look at you like you were crazy.

In 1996, I was into my first year as a mostly self-assigned feature reporter at WAGA. Prior to the start of the Olympics, I scheduled a two-week vacation and took my kids on a road trip to Yellowstone. During that period, I grew a scraggly beard. On the way back I stopped to see my cousin, a farmer in Missouri, who gave me a well-worn trucker-hat, stained with sweat and motor oil and livestock fluids and God knows what else. In exchange, I gave him a “channel 5 eyewitness news” hat, which I don’t think he ever wore.

Wearing the hat, the beard, and some clothes that I’d gunked-up in Peachtree Creek near the TV station, I set out for the just-opened Centennial Olympic Park. The idea was hatched by the late Robert Miller, a streetwise photog who enthusiastically ditched his big-boy camera for a consumer-grade camcorder, so as to blend in with other camcorder-toting tourists. An intern tagged along as Robert’s apparent on-camera foil, while I lurked beyond her wearing a wireless mic.

At this point, let me say: Any story that’s rooted in bullshit is suspect.  Any act that compromises the honesty of a reporter is dangerous. We are constantly trying to earn the trust of the audience; when we integrate bullshit into our coverage, it undermines that.

But it’s also true that we often get better information when we don’t fully disclose our intentions. In this case, a story approached traditionally would have yielded predictable results.

My act included a wobbly walk and a fluctuating grimace that made me look a little nuts. After entering the park, it didn’t take long for a plainclothes GBI agent to stop me.  His “probable cause” was chilling: “Somebody said you was looking at little kids when you walked by. Anything to that?”

That guy gets frisked

That guy gets frisked

It was a bullshit-meets-bullshit moment. When he found my wireless mic, my act unraveled.

A day later, we returned. At the suggestion of WAGA management, I toned down the quirky mannerisms. But it was clear the cops had been briefed about my presence. They mostly steered clear.  Part two was more of the same, minus the accusatory police encounter.

This story has an off-camera sidebar.

After getting into character on the first day, I entered the TV station and immediately raised suspicion. Two strapping photogs and longtime friends saw me first: Travis Shields and Steve Zumwalt. “Sir, may I help you?” offered Travis. My attire was apparently convincing.

They began to circle toward me in an improvised pincer movement, cornering me in an engineering room. When one of them grabbed me, I ID’d myself, drawing embarrassed whoops. You’ve got to go into the newsroom! Travis said.  Great idea.

The moment I entered the newsroom, Leslie Duffield effortlessly and loudly ID’d me: Whoa, look at Doug! Cover blown but with the intrigue of my co-workers stoked, the news director’s administrative assistant made an evil suggestion:  Go into Budd’s office. They’re having a meeting.

So I burst open the door as she dramatically exclaimed Sir! You can’t go in there!  Budd McEntee, the news director, was with his management team, plus the station’s general manager.  There was awkward silence, followed by Sir, may I help you? from McEntee. I just stood there and breathed hard.

After a moment the general manager, Jack Sander, produced a forearm and used it to sort-of pin me against a wall. Almost simultaneously, Michael Carlin, the investigative EP, blurted dismissively: Oh. That’s Doug Richards.

Disappointment. Groans. Annoyance. I beat a hasty exit.

I somehow still had a job, despite my bullshit.

This corrects an earlier version misidentifying the news director’s administrative assistant in 1996 whose name, regrettably, I’ve spaced. I’m a bit embarrassed. She kinda ruled.